Querelle, as seen by Dame Effie Sprinkle IV
When Fassbinder’s Querelle was released in 1982 there were hardly any films available with a gay subject. Dame Effie Sprinkle IV watches it on iTunes and is thankful that gay films no longer have to be incomprehensible ‘art’ films.
In the very early 1990s when I was a student, I used to pass a HMV (anyone remember those quaint things called shops?) on the way to university every day. In the window was a display of foreign films including the box for an intriguing looking film called Querelle – which consisted of a photo of an oiled-up bare-chested mini-hunk called Brad Davis wearing a silly sailor’s hat. The word Querelle looked a bit like the word Queer and I was certain I had thus cracked a secret code – this was a gay film!
In those days porn wasn’t allowed in Britain (as all sex was considered fundamentally disgusting and sinful) and the internet was no use either because it only consisted of 10 geeks at UCLA, so I knew I had to have that video. But it cost 420 shillings (or £21) – a week’s rent – and I had to endure several months of alcohol-free anticipation before I could save up enough to afford it. You can imagine how my lusty eagerness turned into disappointment when I realised what a boring old load of nonsense it was. I lost interest halfway through and switched off, feeling very conned.
You see, in the homophobic horror that was the year 1982 (when Querelle was released), anyone involved in making a gay film was instantly ostracised from Hollywood and expelled from polite society and never worked again. So to get round it, film makers had to dress up gay things as “art” or “intellectual”. Hence, you could only make a film which showed a bit of male nudity or kissing if it was based on some book by some French writer that hardly anyone had ever heard of (Jean Genet in the case of Querelle), or if you were Derek Jarman (who actually made a film which had dialogue entirely in LATIN!) If you were gay in the 1980s, you couldn’t help but become an intellectual by default due to the fact that in order to see a man’s bottom onscreen you had to watch a lot of foreign films with no plot and lots of subtitles that were shown on Channel 4 in the early hours of the morning.
But now, at a more mature age with much more life experience (I’ve been on holiday to France and have Grade 5 piano), I feel ready to evaluate Querelle all over again. Browsing the iTunes store, that torso of Brad Davis looks just as enticing as it ever did, back when I was yet to see one in real life close up. And as it was only £2.49 to rent, I thought I’d give it another go. It would be an interesting test to see whether I’d actually developed intellectually at all.
And, well, I’m afraid I haven’t developed. It’s still a load of pretentious old nonsense. But what I didn’t notice the first time round was how unintentionally bad it is. It becomes an interactive cult experience, a bit like watching the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest. There are so many awful lines in the film that you want to scream them back at the screen. And as they are all intoned as woodenly as possible (many of the actors are dubbed or appear to have been prescribed Mogadon) your efforts will make you feel like Laurence Olivier by comparison. There’s a delicious cast of odd-ball characters including big brute of a bear Nono (I can’t write his name without thinking of that hair removal advert for no!no!) who runs a dockside brothel and makes his customers play a dice game with him (if you lose he gets to fuck you). Querelle naughtily loses on purpose and Nono later laconically boasts that when he pulled out of him there was shit on his dick (classy). Nono’s wife is a very haggard looking drag-queen-esque Jeanne Moreau who sings “Each man kills the things he luffs!” while real drag queens sway around in the background. Her stage act resembles that of seminal BBC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo where Rene’s wife Madame Edith was equally awful (but for comedic effect). Another sailor, Gil is clearly in lust with a curly-haired twink but pretends to be hot for the twink’s sister (we’ve all tried that one). Gil resents any implication that he might be gay though and responds to a bit of jocular teasing by pulling his pants down and presenting his bottom to a laughing crowd. It’s nowhere near as erotic as it sounds. He later says “I’m all man, I even fuck guys!” and you may feel you’ve made a wonderful discovery that SEXUALITY IS FLUID!
The set looks like a school play (one of those plays where the same person plays several roles because not enough people wanted to be in it – it’s the same here, actor Hanno Poschl plays Gil AND Querelle’s brother Robert). And for some reason everything is continuously bathed in an orange glow – you might be mistaken for thinking that a nuclear war was under way and you were accidentally watching another 1980s film, Threads. Just as things threaten to get interesting, the scene cuts to a random jumble of big words which appear onscreen. It is impossible to care about any of the characters as they go about their lives murdering each other for no reason whatsoever.
The unintentional camp aside, the film is also notable for Brad Davis wearing a vest that shows the most man cleavage ever seen, although Nono comes a close second. Oh well. At least it didn’t set me back a week’s rent this time round.
As a coda, years later, after my disappointing video purchase, I visited a small art gallery in Manhattan and some artist was selling screen prints of gay icons. One of them was the picture of Brad Davis in his sailor drag. It cost a lot of shillings ($800 to be exact) and even though I wanted to buy it and hang it above my bed, I still couldn’t afford him. Some things never change.